Thinking past Picasso
Art history professor Elaine O’Brien seldom sees limits. She, along with a dedicated
group of art students, is responsible
for bringing renowned artists and art
experts to campus each semester for lectures and symposiums. O’Brien also helped to successfully revive the Art History major at Sac State last fall, a program that was lost more than a decade ago to budget cuts.
So when she decided to write a book, her goal was characteristically lofty. “I’ve been working on a history of modern art for some time,” says O’Brien, now in her eighth year at Sac State.
Spanning loosely the mid-19th century to the 1970s, the modern period is a lot to cover even in the three-volume set O’Brien visualizes, so she’s taking it one step at a time, focusing on seldom-covered ground. “There’s a gap I’m trying to fill. Modern art survey textbooks are almost exclusively
Eurocentric,” O’Brien says. “Students don’t hear about what went on in Tokyo during the period, for example.”
She’s sought out experts worldwide to help fill the gap. “I’m working with some wonderful art historians, one from China,
another from Tanzania and a third from Mexico,” O’Brien says. She recently traveled on sabbatical to Brussels to work with her co-editor, an expatriate Tanzanian living in Belgium.
With limited funds for additional globetrotting, O’Brien has turned to the virtual world for the majority of her research.
“What makes this possible is the Internet and e-mail. Even five years ago, I don’t think I could have worked like this,” she says. Opportunities like participating in an exchange between
experts in Lagos and Johannesburg while sitting at home in Sacramento are relished by O’Brien.
She says what drives her is showing students that contemporary creative culture is theirs, and that it is as
brilliant as the art history it remixes and makes new. “That’s my passion, and there isn’t one thing I do at Sac State that I don’t enjoy. It’s really a perfect job for me.”